How travel changed my perspective on immigration

For many Americans, the cheapest beach vacation lies just south of the border in Cancun, Mexico. The beaches in Cancun are beautiful, there are dozens of resorts offering swim-up bars, all-inclusive amenities, and guided excursions. Sadly, many who visit this enchanting part of the world rarely leave their resort and say little more than “uno mas cerveza” to the bartenders and waiters catering to their every need. I understand that the majority of people visiting Cancun are on vacation. They aren’t there on some deeply cultural trip to mingle with locals and become immersed in the heritage. They are there to drink fruity drinks, relax, and forget about their problems. No shame in that. Ironically though, some of the world’s biggest problems are right in front of them. And if visitors to Cancun would take a few minutes to truly talk to the staff, get to know about their lives, and hear their stories, it might change their perspectives on a few political issues…issues like immigration.

Parenthood and Passports - How travel changed perspective on immigration

I have intentionally stayed away from writing about anything that is remotely political in nature, but this post definitely touches on a controversial topic in the United States. Consider this a warning, you might disagree with what I’m about to say. I genuinely welcome healthy debate and respect different opinions, so whether you agree with my point of view or not, feel free to leave a comment and share your perspective.

Immigration and the case for the “bad hombres”

Illegal immigration has always been a problem in the USA. Perhaps now more than ever the topic of immigration has divided our country. The former Trump administration has gone on record saying those who illegally crossed the border into the United States are “bad hombres”, criminals, rapists, and thugs. The president’s proposed solution is to round up all “illegals”, essentially yanking them from their homes in the middle of the night, and herding them out of the country by the millions. He then wants to build a wall to keep them out.

While I agree immigration is an issue in the US that needs to be fixed, I strongly disagree with the current president’s solution to the problem.

Having traveled across numerous Latin American countries, I can attest that the vast majority of those crossing the border illegally are the furthest thing from “bad hombres”. 

Parenthood and Passports - How travel changed perspective on immigration

We’ve traveled throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia… all countries which are extremely impoverished by US standards. Never have we felt unsafe. Sure, Mexico and other Latin American countries have some serious crime issues. The drug cartel has created a violent situation in areas near the Mexico/US border (although not all border towns are dangerous). I do not turn a blind eye to the violence border many border towns face, nor would I travel to the more dangerous cities along the border. But for the most part, Latin America is full of some of the kindest people on earth. The people have embraced us and our daughter. They’ve greeted us with smiles and a few curious looks. We’ve engaged in conversation in broken half-English/half-Spanish. And every time we return home, we feel a deeper love and appreciation for the people from all the countries the US seems to be fighting so hard to keep out.

Why you should talk to your Mexican waiter

Some believe that the simple act of crossing into the United States without documentation makes one a criminal. During my career as a journalist and when working in the nonprofit world, I met many undocumented immigrants living in the US. They live in fear, trying to keep a low profile so they don’t get picked up by immigration officers. They’re good people desperately seeking a better life, even if it means basically living their life in hiding.

Many would love to be US citizens and would take tests, learn the language, pay taxes, and do whatever they could to do so. The problem with the messed up immigration system in America is that they can’t. There is basically nothing someone living in the US illegally can do to become a legal resident short of marrying a US citizen. The path for someone living in Latin America to apply and get accepted for legal residency in the US is also quite impossible. Thus in lies the problem. Crossing illegally is their best – and sometimes only – choice.

Imagine a life so horrible that a mother’s best option is to send her 15-year-old son to another country alone. Imagine that young boy journeying across the desert for days by himself, scared, knowing he is risking his life crossing into another country. Now imagine that boy entering a foreign land where he doesn’t know the language and has no money to buy food or find shelter for even a night. As a mother, I cannot imagine making that choice. How bad must life be that turning away your child is better than holding him close? Is that 15-year-old boy a “bad hombre”? Is his mother a “bad mujer”?

Our waiter’s story

That story is not hypothetical. That is the story of a waiter we met in Mexico. But sadly, his story didn’t end there. He did make it across the border, found work as a roofer and eventually enrolled in school in the US. He learned English, met a girl, and the two eventually had a child. But that’s where the happy story ends. One day he was pulled over and arrested for driving without a license. Once authorities realized he was undocumented, he was sent to prison where he spent 8 months. Eight months in prison for driving without a license! He was then deported.

Desperately wanting to reunite with his family, the young man tried to cross the border again. Only this time it wasn’t immigration but the cartel who caught him. They threw a bag over his head, beat him badly, and threatened to kill him if his family didn’t pay them $10,000. The family sold their car and what few belongings they had to pay his ransom. Luckily, the cartel let him go, and he never tried to cross the border again. He eventually moved to Cancun and took a service job to earn a living, although a meager one, and sends all his money to his family.

His daughter is now 7-years-old and he hasn’t seen her in years. I could see the pain in his face as he talked about his daughter. It’s a pain I can’t even fathom.

Parenthood and Passports - How travel changed perspective on immigration
Intentionally blurry and taken from behind to protect our waiter’s identity.

How traveling changed my perspective on immigration

I’m sure many of the people working in resorts in Mexico have similar stories. Stories you will never hear unless you stop for a moment and speak to them. If people take time to engage in deeper conversation with the staff at these all-inclusive resorts, they might leave Cancun with more than just a hangover. Traveling changes your perspective on things. It has changed my perspective and my political views in a lot of ways. For many years, I never had a strong opinion on the subject of immigration… simply because it didn’t affect me as a white, American-born citizen. But traveling has given me a new point of view on immigration.

I’ve seen the standard of living in other countries, I’ve witnessed the poverty and the lack of clean water and quality education. I understand why people see the US as an avenue to a better life. Even our poorest citizens in the United States are rich by most worldly standards. Based solely on my nationality and ethnicity, I know I’ve lived a more privileged life than most. I believe with that privilege comes moral obligation. That’s why I decided to write this post.

Is there a better solution to the immigration issue?

I know there is no easy solution to the illegal immigration issue. But instead of building a wall to keep immigrants out, why don’t we work harder to improve the quality of life in other countries so they won’t want to leave their native land in the first place? Do you think our waiter’s mother would have turned her 15-year-old son out if she had any other choice? I guarantee you, that mother cried herself to sleep at night and worried every second of the day for her son. I don’t blame that mother for sending her son across the border illegally. In fact, I empathize with her. On the issue of immigration, I think the US could use a bit more empathy.

What are your thoughts on the issue of immigration? Has traveling changed your perspective or political views? Leave us a comment. We welcome all opinions.

Parenthood and Passports -How travel changed my perspective on immigration

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26 comments on “How travel changed my perspective on immigration”

Finally someone who thinks the way I do!! I’m Australian but have been to Mexico & Central America MANY times & I agree with you 100%. I currently have an ex sponsor boy from El Salvador working in Mexico trying to provide for him family. I have urged him to reconsider going to US because I don’t want him to be badly treated. I have visited him in El Salvador & he’s a good, wonderful person. I don’t want him to be treated as so many “south of the border “ have been but I totally understand why he & others want a better life in the US. I also agree that they should provide more opportunities in their own countries so they don’t have to leave. My heart breaks for those “south of the border “! Thank you that I have finally found someone who thinks just like me!!!!!

I love you. I have always felt this way but do not have the words to express it. You are brave because most of the nation is so hate centered. Anyway I enjoyed it.

Thank you for writing this! I wish I could get certain people in my life to read this – the ones who agree with a certain person’s “bad hombres” view despite never having left the country. It hurts me to see so many lacking empathy and/or outright refusing to TRY to understand what reality is, why these people are making these choices, and that it’s not as easy as “just do it the legal way” because there really ISN’T a legal option. Your waiter’s story had me nearly in tears….I can’t even imagine. :'(

I’m guessing the H-2A Guest Agricultural and H-2B seasonal worker program could have helped this guy. Lawyers in Mexico and the US specialize in filing it. I’m guessing most don’t want to go back to Mexico once a year for a month and also the burden of going through the paperwork legally. Also, he may not have qualified after being caught as an illegal.

Yeah. That’s the saddest part is that he will never qualify for legal entry because he now has a criminal record in the states. He said that he hopes his daughter will one day get married in Cancun so he can see her get married. She’s only 7. So it may be decades before he gets to see his daughter again.

And, also, what financial burden comes with the legal burden of filling out the paperwork? Most lawyers don’t work for free. Or the financial implications of going back to Mexico for a month…availability of knowledge on how to apply for those programs…so many factors that may make the legal options impossible options. 🙁

Very well said Sky. I think most people don’t realize that if you are poor and living in one of the Latin American countries, it’s nearly impossible to get a US visa or migrate legally.

In a perfect world, it would be great to go into a foreign country to “help” with poverty and educational situations, to try to keep people in their own homes, but that’s not reality with our government, especially not now. If we could somehow have a meeting of the minds to realize that the first simple steps should be that H-2A & H-2B be expanded. Dreamers also need to have a hand extended to them. Folks here already need a program set in place to be able to legally register that they are here and they are working, with no threats attached. Most of them learn English, live in homes and apartments, buy gas, home improvement items, etc., meaning they are already paying taxes. Texas would not be as wealthy and well off without immigrants. Heard a discussion today about immigrants joining the military and still not be eligible for citizenship. That’s just wrong. I personally don’t understand the hate and divisiveness, but know that it is something that we must not stay silent about, and we must do a better job than just kicking people out. Thanks for the post M.

Thanks Crystal. I agree. The division in our country and the hatred based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation should be enough to make all of us take a stand for those on the receiving end of the hate. The only way we can do a better job as a country is if more of us start to speak up for those who do not have a voice in our government.

Oh! There was a lump in my throat to read the story of the waiter. May be somebody can bring his family over to Cancun so that they can meet. Can’t imagine the sad plight of the mother to send her son away for a better future. Immigration is such a complex issue in several countries around the world.

We often forget that everyone has their own story. It is too easy to judge someone. I will certainly be taking the time to get to know people better after reading this.

Agree. We have probably become those overly chatty tourists, but we learn so much from talking to people abroad. We’ve even made friends and stayed in touch with some of the people we’ve met while traveling.

Thank you for posting on an important topic. Travel bloggers shouldn’t shy away from immigration because it touches our lives the minute we cross international borders.Sometimes, we don’t even have to travel out of our homelands to experience it. The guy who packs our groceries may be an immigrant. Our family doctor may be an immigrant. We have to be conscious of how other people live and stop thinking that it’s rainbows and fairy tales for everyone.

Thank you Suzanne! I agree. It does our reads and the countries we visit a disservice if we only talk about the beauty of the beaches or what they offer tourists but do not mention the extreme poverty of their citizens and the challenges and hardships that they face.

Thank you for addressing such an important and controversial issue. People easily forget that everyone has a story and that everyone is an actual person not just a number. We need more empathy in this world

There really seems to be an immigration issue going on, not just in the States but in many parts of the world. As travellers, we really get to see the full impact immigration has on several countries and I often wish we can do more. Thanks for bringing up the issue, i agree it should always be pushed into public conscience at every opportunity.

I really enjoy reading thought pieces like these because they show a different side of travel rather than the usual Top 10 lists or promotional articles. The debate of immigration aside, it’s so important that when we travel, we take in the rest of the world and how others live and survive and in most cases than not, they have a lot less than we do. With respect to the policies, immigration is a double edged sword, as it might drain the local resources of a community on the one hand, but on the other, we need more people to share and not be selfish and this is just a way of doing that, provided neither of the parties uses the other.

Reading your Mexican waiter’s story broke my heart. I can’t imagine a person not seeing his daughter for seven years. Hope he gets united with his family soon. Thanks for sharing this brilliant story.

As they say, travel widens your horizons and improves you as a person. This post is a great example of that. These are difficult issues with many facets but a thoughtful and considerate approach can help everyone find solutions.

Thank you for sharing your story and your waiter’s story! We could all use a little more empathy and I can definitely agree travel can help change and influence our perceptions. No matter where I am (whether I am traveling or at home) I typically try to make conversation with my Uber/Lyft/Taxi drivers – as I find many are immigrants and have very interesting stories of how they got where they are.

I came across your post while researching my trip to Big Bend National Park. I could not agree more. I wish more people had your empathy and understanding

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